Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Election Retrospective Blogpost Part Two

Come election day the pollsters were predicting a hung parliament. Well hung. This will require some explanation - stop sniggering at the back.

A General Election elects the Members of Parliament (MPs) for the House of Commons based in Westminster, London. The election is held across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which make up the United Kingdom. The House of Commons has approximately 650 MPs each one representing a constituency - a particular area of the UK. The winner of the most votes in each constituency wins a "seat" in the House of Commons.

There is a second unelected house called the House of Lords. Historically the House of Lords was supposed to be made up of made up of individuals who although unelected were expected to be sufficiently wise as to always operate in the country's best interest and act as a counterweight against the possible excesses of a rogue House of Commons. This has always been a controversial state of affairs and House of Lords reform is always a subject under discussion. Currently the House of Lords contains a mix of individuals nominated by the major political parties via the prime minister and the monarch( life peers), twenty six senior bishops (the Lords Spiritual) and a small number of hereditary peers (family connections). Yes, you heard me right, God has a say in our political process and also if an ancient ancestor of yours went into battle for the monarch and pleased him/her that may well entitle you through birthright to have a say in running the country. Controversial in a modern democracy I'm sure you would agree. Members of the House of Lords can be appointed to government posts and many are definitely politically aligned. Although life peers are chosen from across the political spectrum, as a whole The House of Lords is generally considered more inclined in favour of the Conservatives. But let's get back to the election.

In the UK we operate an electoral system called First Past the Post. This is actually a slightly misleading name but in the way of many things in the UK - we've always called it that so why change?

First Past the Post means the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. When the winner is declared, all votes for any of the losing candidates are effectively dead and lost. We don't do proportional representation (PR) which allows for the seats allocated in parliament to more closely represent the percentage of votes received nationally by each party. A system of PR has always been resisted by the Labour and Conservative parties as it has the potential to create a fractured parliament of minor parties. First Past the Post almost always creates an outright winner and this should make for a stable government. We don't want to end up like Italy which changes its government more often than the average Pom changes his grundies. The mathematicians amongst you will realise that under this system it is entirely possible that a political party could win a disproportionately higher percentage of seats relative to the percentage of votes they received as whole across the country. This happens. It also means that a smaller party who may gain perhaps five or ten percent of votes across the country wins no seats at all. The smaller parties consider this unfair and I can see their point. We have a long tradition of minor political parties and independent eccentrics trying their hand at getting elected. Even if they were to gain only 1% of votes across the country, PR would give them a small place in parliament but First Past the Post effectively shuts them all out.

At 10pm the polling stations closed and the exit poll was announced. The exit poll is the first indicator of how the election may pan out. On election day the media are only allowed to report on the barest of details concerning the events of the day. No politicians are interviewed and media speculation on the outcome is not permitted. A bit of a news blackout really which is a relief for the poor voter who's seen nothing but this for the previous month or so. The main news story reported on election day this year was actually about the leader of one of the minor political parties who was lucky not to get himself killed in a light aircraft accident - election day news reporting is rarely this exciting. The exit poll predicted a hung parliament.

To properly win an election a party must gain a majority. This does not simply mean they must win more seats than the second placed party. A majority means winning more seats than all other parties put together. First Past the Post makes this more probable than any system of PR. If a party wins more seats than anyone else but does not win a majority then this is a hung parliament and the shenanigans begin.

Come Friday morning we had a hung parliament. The Conservatives had won 306 seats, Labour 258, Liberal Democrats 57 and other parties gained 21. Politicians hate hung parliaments. Politics in the UK for the last 18 months or so have been dominated by two things. The failing economy and the way our MPs have claimed their expenses. As an electorate we had managed to upset almost all politicians in all parties. We had just reason to be proud of ourselves for delivering this ambiguous message to the political class who, because of the scandal over their expenses were viewed as little better than money-grubbing opportunists who seemed to think that charging for porn movies, garden landscaping, non-existent mortgages and state of the art plasma TVs were legitimate occupational expenses that should be financed for them by the taxpayer.

Trying to create a working government from this election outcome would mean the politicians would have to scrap it out like ferrets in a sack.

Final instalment later this week - if you want me to.


nursemyra said...

I suggest scrapping the House of Lords

King of Scurf said...

nursemyra: I'll have you know this is the mother of all parliaments and we have exported this model of government across the world.

But seriously, I agree, it's wrong. We want a two-house system but we can't agree on what form the second house should take and so get by on this rather bizarre arrangement.

Terra Shield said...

You sure do explain very well... I see quite a few similarities in our systems, especially the part about getting a majority in the parliament, and how MPs become MPs...